Joan opened the door; inside it was icy cold and a shock. The floors were gray and not clean. As far as Syb could tell, there was not a clean floor in any of the adobe houses of New Mexico, not in the authentic old ones. One of their characteristics seemed to be spaced floor boards through which, when they finally did sweep, the dirt dropped.

The cold was like the blast from a tomb. Preserved cold. The thick mud and plaster walls preserved the cold, as one would presume they would, for eternity, if necessary, preserve the human heart. Insulation: that which is in stays in, that which is out stays out. It was a blast from the coldest part of what had actually been an unusually beautiful, warm, spring Good Friday among the Penitente. Holly and Sibylline were visiting Trampas and Truchas high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Even Christ's blood ran cold, Syb knew, high up here in this clean, frigid air that could not be colder if it came from her own flesh-eating stone sarcophagus.

She stepped onto the bare floor where two small gray rugs of what had once been cheerful colors lay. The interior was dark and not furnished like houses in the city. Its wood stoves and old chests had a built-by-hand look that, in spite of the cold -- and Sibylline was highly allergic to cold -- that seemed friendly, welcoming.

The counter tiles in the kitchen dipped down near the sink. Syb commented on the charm of the little soaring birds pictured on alternate tiles. Joan said someone she knew made them and laid them, and came again from time to time to re-support the edge of the sink where it sagged. Why it sagged, she didn't know.

The floors, Syb now saw, were made of unfinished, unpolished, hand-cut boards -- Joan had made them herself, with the help of a friend. Syb stepped over and adobe sill to go down into the front bedroom, and up a hand carved stair to the room -- that was meant for her. Joan, a pig-tailed, young refugee from the fast lane, was learning Indian ways and to make Indian food. When Syb said during the celebration, "How I'd love to live here," meaning the New Mexico desert and the heat, Joan had said, "I have a room for rent."

It was dark as a cave, bare and cold. "Oh, I could never live here." Even at four in the afternoon of a sunny day, it was so dark one could hardly see. There was a high free-standing wooden wardrobe partitioned with old boards, a small, home-made drafting table, a bed, a chair, a stove.

Syb envied Joan, but...

Joan snapped on the light. The white-washed room sprang to life. Brilliant. It was as if sunshine came pouring in on command. Everything was illuminated. "Light is the closest thing to human consciousness," -- Arthur Young's statement kept Syb company most of the time. But knowing the light was artificial, Syb shivered.

Shall I be a monk-ess high in the mountains under the Truchas peaks, where the cross is? I could step from my cell to see the snow caps on the peaks, and the great cross flung across their face. I could meditate on the haunting wail of the Penitente's God on Good Friday -- the day of Christ's crucifixion and his imitators thereafter. Holly, whose husband worked for the Los Alamos lab, had said: "Some say back in the woods, back in the mountains, the Penitente still crucify one of their own each year."

Sibyl didn't think she was shockable, but that had shocked her. "Why?

"In memory of the sorrow of their savior, in solemn imitation of His act. They believe He should not suffer more than they, so they crucify one of their own."

"My God."

"It's outlawed, of course. No one knows if it is true any more, or if it ever was."

"They suffer because Christ suffered. Isn't that backwards?"

"Born to Die," Holly said some of the kids had tatooed across their chess.

"Which," Syb said, "you can't quarrel with physically or philosophically," but it made her a little nauseous just the same -- the thought of those needles poking holes in the kids' flesh.

Earlier that day they had seen the Penitente go through the poor remnants of their rituals. The wooden Christ in his purple robe kissed his wooden mother draped in her black mantilla. They kissed and parted. He was carried off with is cross, and she floated back into the church to be consoled in her misery with candles in glass.

The men in their sheepskin jackets and old black broadcloth suits knelt in the frozen dust and sang from their tiny hand-written missals. The melody, sad and minor, about Rosario Marie, floated high over the dirt in the sunshine there in the ice-white Blood of Christ Mountains.

And here is my monk's cell, Syb thought, to begin my penance and redemption. She looked at the room. She longed for the room. In her imagination, she inhabited the room.

Would she come here one day soon? Could she, who found Christ and all that goes with him, all the passion, the morbidity, the sexism, quite unappealing, quite unnecessarily doloroso, live in the Blood of Christ Mountains? Man's primitive necessity to commemorate the sorrowful, to worship the tragic seemed to her tragically out of date. To take a simple act like a man, whose teaching was in any case ignored, being mistakenly executed as a criminal and make a world religion out of it? Or to take an equally simple act, like marrying your mother by mistake, and make a psychologically complicated necessity out of it? Men seemed bent on entertaining themselves with dark thoughts and calling them profound, a trait more primitive than the Penitente of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Did she want to partake of their territory and their pain? She found it painful to be in a cold room. Yet it fulfilled her dream, a sanctuary high away from everyone, everything. A cell in which to sleep and write, country to walk in, opportunity to chop wood, to help construct a house. It had always been a pleasure to her to get up from her desk, to shoo the images back into her brain, and to indulge in the recreation of hard labor. This was her dream. Joan had, with an icy blast from the tomb, opened the door and shown her her dream face to face.

Would she accept it?

Holly told an amusing story about owning a farm with some other couples further up, beyond the mountains. One of the other couples, even more interested in privacy than they were, had gone there alone for their vacation. The neighbors, the good country people, walking two miles, five miles, seven miles, eager for news from the city, eager to welcome them, hoping to be the first to get the gossip, came to visit bring rutabagas, ears of corn, rutabagas, little house gifts, more rutabagas until finally Holly's friends from Los Alamos rose in exasperation, turned on the endless parade of friendly, welcoming faces, shouting: "No more rutabagas! We're the rich ones from the city, remember. We don't want any more rutabagas, we want privacy!" The country people scattered like startled birds.

Could she, Sibylline Kahn, of Beverly Hills, stand the quiet spaced-out-ness of country conversations about planting, sowing, reaping, the wind and the rain? Did she want those questions that, as an angel from Los Angeles, occupied about five minutes of her day, to grow to occupy the whole of hours, of afternoons? On Good Friday did she want to walk from Truchas in the mountains to Chimayo in the desert to commemorate the walk of the boys on Bataan in a war she'd forgotten, not as a tourist but as a neighbor?

She'd spent seven years once, in the country, picking wild strawberries, worrying the outer edges of necessity, nothingness and the abstract. Did she want to do that again? What is necessary? What is there to talk about? What is there to write about?

If she chose her monk's cell in El Valle (pronounced El Vie Yea) would she know how to answer those questions? Or, much the same, and perhaps the wiser course, would she be smart enough not to ask them?

What does one do in a small white-washed room perched on a stool a mile and a half up in the sky in the Blood of Christ Mountains. What does one do in the dead of winter in a monk's cell wrapped in a four thousand dollar fur coat to hide her nakedness. Syb longed only for perpetual light, perpetual heat, perpetual sunshine. Why, she wondered, for all the offers that presented themselves for a life beyond her present life, was the drawback always the cold? She could return any time she wanted to the north, stay in her sister's cabin, free, isolated, cold. She could live with Juna near the sea. Juna loved the cold. She could go to Texas, to a ruined cattle baron's castle with Joseph, but in the mountains where it was cold and there was no heat. She could move in here with Christ's blood and shiver. No one offered the high heat of the desert. Why?

Can you imagine me here, in this monk's cell, among the Penitente, among the Spanish, the Indians who talk of the heat, who talk of the cold, who talk of the planting and the reaping, who, aeons flying by, look at the sky, look at the grass, who can name all forty-nine people in the village -- and do -- giving each daughter's name and each son's name and detailing who puts up strawberry jam.

Eating pie, Holly and Syb found, was worth talking about at the Montoyas where Joan had suggested they stop for a visit on the way to look at the house. The Montoyas, both seventy or eighty, talked of a day, recent it seemed, when they had eaten a pie. A smile both beatific and witty had come over the old man's toothless face, his merry eyes twinkled. And Mrs. Montoya, her eyes, her sweetheart-smile, twinkled too.

The jaded strings of Sibylline's heart were plucked, the strings of her heart -- jaded by trips to Italy, trips to Greece, trips to Jerusalem, trips to Japan, India, trips through her imagination back into the Tsarist palaces of Peter, strings made hard as jade, as the jade suits the Chinese Empresses wore to rest in for eternity -- sounded. Green and translucent, solid and diamond hard, the strings of her heart had almost no vibratory quality left, but they moved a little at the smile of Mr. Montoya and the smile of Mrs. Montoya while they spoke of eating their last summer's blackberry pie.

Immediately, however, the semi-precious music was silenced as Syb remembered how she had fled from the talk of pie and bread and cinnamon rolls, the preparing of food and the cleaning up. As someone had said to her recently, after a visit from her mother and father and siblings: "Your family is obsessed with food." It was her, her family, like all primitives, though they worked in offices and drove cars, had not got beyond the hunting and gathering, the feasting stage of human culture. She groaned at the thought of again meeting people who spent their time discussing the pie they were going to eat next summer when the apricots were ripe.

The anguish and the despair had risen with the change in her pituitary gland, the sickness had risen after television, in the wake of movies. She went into puberty as if she had gone into shock. She fled. She had rejected her parents, her heritage, the quotidian, the normal, the natural. Out there, surely was a world of adventure, a world of accomplishment, wonderful things.

The boredom that had risen in her at the talk of the pie, the talk of the baby, the uncle's cousin, the boredom that had risen in her as she was forced to visit her family instead of her friends, boredom rising like a screaming mania overwhelmed her, made her reject. Reject. It send her around the world searching, searching. Life couldn't be sitting there talking about the pie, talking about the rain, the reaping, the weeping, the ripping, the sewing. This is not life, her young soul screamed. But she had never been able to assuage the fear.

Yet here, in a monk's cell, she saw the end of her search. Here on a mountain top waiting for her neighbors to come talk about the eating of pie, she would rest and watch the land blossom.

"We haven't had any cherries for many years," Mr. Montoya had observed.

"The frost comes overnight and all the blossoms are gone," Mrs. Montoya echoed.

"There are no cherries."


"Haven't been cherries for years."

In Beverly Hills, over lunch, that would take two second, then one would go on to the state of the world, the state of the war, the state of one's soul, the state of one's diet, the condition of one's deal, the hope and plans for a vacation, a trip to Tibet this year, Samarkand next. There was no time for boredom, nor monk's room. Mail piling high grew into mountains, needed filing. Her clothes didn't get hung up between one engagement and the next.

But surely life is something more than the birthing and dying of forty-nine people in the Blood of Christ Mountains. Surely it's more than the re-enactment of the death of a petty criminal, or non-criminal who had some walks and some talks with his buddies. Surely there was more to life than listening for the thunder.

Yet, here she was standing in the cold breath of the tomb, looking at a monk's cell for rent, and knowing she would probably take it.

Copyright © 2000 through 2015 Jan Haag

Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail:

Jan Haag is a novelist, poet, painter, cattipointist, textile artist, and former Director of National Production Programs for the American Film Institute.

Other works of fiction include SHEBA, a Cattipoint story, and NO PALMS, a novel. For other works with a New Mexico or Southwest setting see Rio Grande, George Coluzzi, Arizona Desert, and McDonald Observatory.




21st CENTURY ART, C.E. - B.C., A Context